Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Charlottesville and the Antidote to Hate

In view of recent developments in Charlottesville, it seemed it might be time to address a few simple points. These are points I tried to make sure my seventh grade students grasped every year.

I can tell you—most did.

During my classroom career, I operated on the principle that history, my subject, was the study of people.

In that light, we often studied the words of the Roman poet Terrance, who once said, “Nothing human is alien to me.” We dissected the meaning of that quote, shortened slightly, the first day of class every year. It was my opinion that all human beings are fundamentally alike.

Working from that premise, we repeatedly focused on empathy in class, “the ability to feel what another person feels.”

I called it “the antidote to hate.”

I had several lesson plans designed to foster empathy in any way I could. One I was most proud of began with a boy on the bus. 

“Back when I was in ninth grade,” (now more than half a century, I must admit) I started by informing every class, “we used to see kids we called ‘hair lips.’ I don’t mean to be cruel. They were born with a birth defect involving a hole in the palate (here I showed what I meant) or lip. Doctors closed the hole. But this left scars and most ‘hair lips’ sounded funny when they talked. 

“We had a boy like that, who had other handicaps, who rode our bus. The only person he talked to was the driver. Every morning he’d climb aboard and call out, ‘Eyyyy, Brrnee.’ Bernie. That was the driver’s name. He’d walk down the aisle and two big high school guys would go: ‘Eyyyy, Brrnee.’ They mocked him every day. It made me sick then. It makes me sick now.

“If I had been bigger, I would have told them to stop,” I added, “but I was skinny and couldn’t do much to help.”

Every student in the room could see the point. The cruelty of the two older boys. The evil of picking on one so defenseless. This held their attention and we went from there.

For homework students had read a handout based on A Brief History of the Indies, published in 1552, written by Bartolome Las Casas, a Spanish priest. Las Casas admitted when he first came to the New World all he cared about was gold. He purchased Indian slaves and ignored the teachings of Christ. When he saw cruelties all around he began to feel a weight upon his soul. He freed his slaves and took holy orders, devoting his life to saving as many natives as he could.

Students read scenes like this:

     The Christians, with their horses and swords and lances, began to slaughter and practice strange cruelty among them [the natives]...and spared neither children, nor the aged, nor pregnant women, nor those in child labor. They not only stabbed them but dismembered them [cut them up] like lambs in a slaughterhouse.
     They made bets as to who could split a man in two or cut off his head with one sword blow...They took babes from their mothers...and dashed their heads against the rocks...Others they seized by the shoulders and threw them into the rivers, laughing and joking...and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!” 

Part of a project by one of my students on this topic.

Before classes began, I prepared by taping pictures of the Holocaust on the board and pulling down maps and a movie screen to hide them. Students entered and took their seats. I told them the story of the boy on the bus and asked simply, “How can people be so cruel?”

That was our question for the day.

(Preparing this now, to post on my blog, I suppose I’d say it’s still the question for the day—for every day of human history.)

“What was the worst example from last night’s reading?” I inquired.

Almost every student raised a hand. “When the Spanish cut off the hands of the slaves,” Maggie responded.

“When soldiers burned the building with 300 Indian leaders inside,” said Marco.

“Throwing babies into the river,” Deedee added.

“How could they do it?” I asked again. “How could so many be so cruel? And what made Las Casas and others who tried to save the natives different?”

I didn’t expect anyone to bite yet. I continued: “How long did Las Casas spend trying to save the Indians?”

Ken responded: “Fifty years.”

I asked: “How many of you ever walk down the street and see a bug and step on it?”

All kinds of hands went up.

“Didn’t you feel guilty?” I asked one boy. “Gary! You murderer! That bug had a family, and they’re all like, ‘Hey, when’s Dad coming home, maybe he’ll bring us a toy,’ and you’re like, ‘No big deal. I’ll just scrape dad off the bottom of my shoe and keep walking.’”

The bug idea always got a laugh—the last of the day. I asked how the Spanish (some of them) could do what they did. No one was ready to answer. “It’s the same as the two boys on the bus. Or stepping on a bug. What did the soldiers say when they threw babies in the river?”

“Boil there, you offspring of the devil,” Deedee offered.

Correct. “Now, if the devil walked in this room right now and Gary jumped up and killed the devil, wouldn’t he be good?”

Deedee admitted Gary would be good.

“You admit you’ve stepped on bugs,” I reminded her. “No one thinks killing bugs is wrong?”

They’re just bugs classmates interjected.

Unfortunately, I explained, Hitler and his followers believed killing Jews was acceptable. One Nazi official said the world would build a monument in their honor because they had the courage to do what no one else did. Getting rid of Jews was “like killing vermin,” he insisted, “a matter of cleanliness.”

Did anyone know what vermin were?

“Bugs, fleas. Rats, I think,” Jacob offered. I told the class he was right.   

“It’s a question of dehumanization,” I continued. The definition goes on the board: “to see others as less than human; lower than yourself.”

“I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but most of you dehumanize others. You put labels on groups or individuals you don’t like and you’re on your way!”

“We don’t kill people, though,” Greg objected. True. I turned and added to our notes: “Labeling: to see all members of a group as the same, without individual difference.”

In our school, students admitted peers were labeled “preps,” as in preppy, well-dressed, college-prep types. Poor kids (at least when I started) were labeled “grits,” dirty, lowly, unclean. Labels, we noted, allowed us to ignore the fact our enemies are human. 

I threw this out: “Next time you see someone you don’t like, say: ‘I hate that human being.’ It doesn’t work.”

I said I despised labels. But who could think of one? Every year I worried some parent would see this day’s notes and flip. The examples poured out: nigger, fag, gook, bitch, jock, nerd.

“Yeah,” I interjected, “let’s pick on him. He’s a nerd!” I asked someone to tell me what made a nerd a nerd.

Oliver and Kayla both said nerds were weak. That’s two “N-words” now.

“Oh! Even better! Let’s pick on the weak!” I added scornfully. We were back to the boy on the bus. Students who knew they were guilty of such behavior were already shifting in their seats.

Then we moved to the final steps of the lesson. We raised the maps and movie screen. The kids came forward and looked at pictures of the Holocaust. There were young children being rounded up, Stars of David upon their sleeves. There was a grandmotherly-type looking straight into the camera. “Look: she seems like the type who’d bake cookies for the grand kids.

“Dangerous,” I scoffed.

Another picture showed a house painted with the word: “Jude.” “Notice,” I told my class, “you can walk down the street and say, ‘I hate those Jews!’ You don’t even have to see them to hate them.”

“We do the same,” Antoinette replied. “We label people according to skin color and don’t think.” 

I nodded agreement.

Antoinette was staring at a photo of a long trench filled with emaciated corpses. Tears started. Her friend tugged her arm and led her to her seat. Students were subdued when I sent them back to their places. The bell was about to ring and we would pick up on the subject the next day. 

I used this lesson plan for twenty-five years and it never failed. Then, one day, I heard something completely unexpected. Susie spoke up, one of my favorite students, but still plain-looking and gawky at thirteen. The lesson was finished. The bell was about to ring. Classmates were thinking about labeling and the cruelty that inevitably follows. Susie had her hand up. Clearly, she hoped to have the final say. 

I called on her and she explained in an anguished voice, “You know, Mr. Viall, the other kids label me. They call me a ‘dog.’”

For once I was speechless. We all know teens can be cruel. No one had ever exposed this so perfectly, in such timely fashion, in its starkest forms. The word “dog” hung in the air like a Nazi victim on a scaffold.

We had just devoted an entire period to a discussion of human cruelty. Now those who had inflicted pain on Susie saw themselves, as it were, in a mirror. The image reflected wasn’t flattering.

“That is absolutely wrong,” I spluttered, my voice shaking with emotion. I looked to her peers for explanation. Chastened by a victim’s revelation, no one dared utter a word. The bell rang and I stood and stared as Susie’s tormentors snuck out the door and made their escape to lunch. 

The dehumanizers are always dangerous, always evil, and always wrong.
I don't think that's hard to understand.


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